This is a book about near-death experiences (NDEs) from an unusual perspective. It's concerned, not so much with whether these experiences are really indicative of life after death, but more with what they mean to modern experients and how this meaning has changed over time. For although people have been having these experiences for a long time, their nature, and especially the interpretation attached to them, have been as much a cultural as a personal psychological phenomenon.
The first part of the book deals mainly with the mediaeval period. Zaleski presents a paradigm version of the experience at this time, illustrating it with contemporary accounts. The sequence of the visions is different from that typically reported today. The visionary usually has to pass through various ordeals, perhaps fire, often a bridge. As a result of the ordeals the visionary undergoes a transformation and returns to life charged with a message for the living. But it seems that the descriptions we have are seldom of the unadulterated experience; they are more of a collective effort, with much cultural overlay. As one would expect, the whole experience is set within a religious framework and the general aim seems to be instruction and edification.
When we turn to modern accounts of NDEs we find both similarities and differences in comparison with earlier descriptions. The mediaeval visionaries often underwent frightening or terrible experiences, but those reported by modern experients are nearly always peaceful or blissful. But there is again a fairly well-established sequence of stages (departure from the body, journey through a tunnel, encounter with a Being of Light, return to the body, transformation), and, as in the Middle Ages, the description of these stages seems to be to some extent a collaborative enterprise between the visionary and the person who questions him or her. As in the Middle Ages, the returning NDEer often undergoes a spiritual transformation; he or she frequently claims to be more compassionate and understanding, to have lost the fear of death, and sometimes reports the acquisition of paranormal abilities.
Zaleski discusses the various explanations that have been advanced to account for these experiences but in a different way from most who have written on the subject. Can they be attributed to lack of oxygen, drugs, endorphins, the limbic lobe syndrome, or other "natural" causes? Rationalists such as Susan Blackmore (whose book Dying to Live is reviewed on this site) think they can, whereas defenders of the survivalist theory advance counter-arguments. Zaleski doesn't take sides, and, even reading between the lines, it's difficult to decide what she really thinks. She suggests that we "view otherworld visions as artifacts of the imagination". The otherworld journey is essentially a narrative, and she seems to think that we should approach it in the same frame of mind as we use to assess a novel or a play, rather than scientifically or philosophically. The attempt to verify NDEs by analysing them and trying to isolate veridical elements is, she believes, misguided.
Paradoxically, the very method that permits us to respect visionary testimony prohibits us from using it to make a case for survival. To this extent, we must frustrate the truth claims of near-death literature.Nevertheless, within certain limits the NDE is "one way in which the religious imagination mediates the search for ultimate truth."
I have to admit to being one of those rather literal-minded people who aren't entirely happy with the idea that we shouldn't ask questions about the evidential value of NDEs. Nevertheless, this is one of the more important books to have appeared on this difficult subject. It is deeply researched and intellectually sophisticated and sets the phenomenon squarely within its historical context. In so doing it illuminates it, although, perhaps inevitably, it raises as many questions as it answers. No one interested in the NDE should fail to read it.